(This is the second part of the interview with Tim Keller; if you haven’t yet done so, you might want to listen to part 1 first.)
In this episode, Malcolm Schluenderfritz and Tim Keller discuss the mistakes that can be made while building community, the Sursum Corda community and the 4 pillars of community life, the importance of a culture of reconciliation, and some practical pointers for building community.
Utopianism is a grave danger for those trying to form a community. The pursuit of an unattainable ideal will almost certainly result in disillusionment and failure. It also will keep those involved in such a project from learning from existing communities. Worse, it can create an incentive to hide personal or community failings to preserve an ideal image. When such hidden flaws are revealed, the community may well collapse because it never had a solid foundation.
Connected to the danger of utopianism is the danger of giving fellow community members unearned trust. Tim Keller said one should “Trust but verify”. Those striving to build Christian community are just as broken as anybody else, and bad things can happen in a community.
Accountability needs to be carefully balanced with individual autonomy and free will. Any community needs to have at some accountability, but it can degenerate into an overly controlling environment.
Envy and Competition
Community members also need to realize that each member has different strengths and weaknesses, different skills, and a different family situation. Not everyone will be equally successful in each area of life. If this isn’t realized and embraced, it can result in “family envy” and feelings of inferiority and failure. Community can’t be based on merely human strengths, but rather on the love of God.
A community can easily fall into a sort of spiritual pride. The members may come to see themselves as the only “real” Christians, and feel that anyone who really loves God would join them. The community needs to see itself as merely one of the possible ways of living the Christian life.
Family Life in Community
Balancing community and family life is another area in which a community can make mistakes. Without healthy families, the community will fall apart, but the number of community activities may sometimes hamper family life.
Needy people are often attracted to a community. Community members can help such people, but they have to realize that such help can only go so far. Otherwise, such people may end up monopolizing the attention of the community, which can’t actually fix their problems.
The Sursum Corda Community
When Tim and his family moved from Tempe, Arizona to Albuquerque, New Mexico, he thought he would be able to start another branch of City of the Lord there. This didn’t prove possible, however; local Catholics were uninterested in joining something they couldn’t experience in person. He realized he would have to embark on a much slower and more organic process. He started meeting with local families, and gradually they began to form the Sursum Corda community.
We discussed the importance of the twelfth chapter of Romans; it provides a beautiful blueprint for the Christian life, and “Romans 12” became a slogan for the City of the Lord Community. We are “transformed by the renewal of our minds” as we follow Christ.
Pillars of Community Life
The Sursum Corda community came up with a set of four “pillars” that can support the spirituality of a healthy community:
- Love Jesus
- Cultivate Relationships
- Build Culture
- Live Mission
These four pillars build on one another. Everything flows from a healthy personal relationship with Jesus. That relationship with Jesus flows out into healthy friendships with others; relationships need to be built and strengthened in an intentional way. Out of those relationships grows the culture of a wider group, a community. Such a community, living out of the love of Christ and healthy relationships with one another, naturally lives out a mission to the wider world. Mission becomes part of everything such a community does, bringing people into the life of the community.
Outsiders experience the four pillars in reverse order. Somebody is invited to a community event or meeting; while there, they experience the loving culture of the group. Over time, they build relationships with community members, and eventually encounter Jesus in a deeper way through the community.
A Culture of Honor and Respect
To build a successful Christian community, the members have to create a culture of honor and respect for one another. They can’t gossip, backbite, hold grudges. They need to be intentional about asking for forgiveness if they have hurt another. Bad things will happen in community life. A community needs a culture of love and forgiveness to get through the rough patches. Disagreements may arise about politics, theology, parenting, and many other topics. The community, however, can’t let such disagreements become divisions. We can’t be in a hurry to write others off.
Practical Steps for Building Community
As Tim pointed out, all this talk about the wonderful things communities can do can be rather intimidating to those just starting out! He advises the following practical steps to build community in your local area:
Just start meeting! Find a few other families or individuals and just get together to talk. Have meals together, have fun, and most importantly, pray together.
Ground everything you do in the Faith; that has to be at the center, or the resulting community will be fairly shallow.
Over time, as the community develops, the time will come to get more intentional. One of the ways to do this is to start meeting as small groups alongside the main bigger group. Men’s and women’s groups are a good way to do this.
Visit existing communities! They are a great source of inspiration and guidance. Both City of the Lord and Sursum Corda would be happy to have you visit.
Don’t give up! The process of building community is a long, slow one. There will probably be setbacks and trouble along the way, but if you persist these setbacks can actually strengthen the project over time.
- You can find the City of the Lord website here.
- You can find the website of Tim’s community, Sursum Corda, here.
- Tim mentioned John Paul II’s letter Christifideles Laici, which can be found here.
Image: Ken Lund; Sandia Mountains CC BY-SA 2.0
City of the Lord
In this episode, Malcolm interviews Tim Keller about his experience in community. Tim discusses the importance of community life and describes the spirituality and activities of the City of the Lord, a Charismatic covenant community which he has been part of for 40 years.
We all have a covenant
Tim explains that, far from being esoteric or unusual, covenant community is fundamental to the Christian life. Every Christian is part of a covenant relationship with the Lord and with other Christians, simply by virtue of baptism. For Catholics, this is reinforced by the Eucharist, the Sacrament of unity.
Community as an “altar call”
Building a community is a way to reinforce and claim the covenant we have already entered into with the Lord. This covenant gives us rights and responsibilities that are difficult to live out alone. The community helps individuals to affirm and ratify their commitment.
God’s face to the world
We discussed the amazing reality of our Christian mission. As members of the Mystical Body, we have to show Christ’s love to the world. The love in a community is the best way to show others the love of Christ.
Commitment to one another
Tim discussed a fundamental shortcoming that limits the effectiveness of many Catholic programs, from men’s groups to youth outreach: those in the groups are not actually sharing the whole of life together. If the men in a small group, for instance, were actually sharing the whole of life and knew one another’s families, they would be more effective at offering support and guidance. (See our blog post on supporting one another in community here.)
“The poverty of riches”
In the past, community was natural; people needed one another. Tim pointed out that today, our wealth has created a certain kind of relational poverty. We need to rebuild the kind of caring community that once existed.
The City of the Lord Community
For 40 years, Tim Keller has been a member of the City of the Lord community, which is based in four cities in Arizona and southern California. It is a Charismatic Covenant Community in which groups of families come together to share life in Christ with one another. Tim described the activities of the community, ranging from block parties to healing ministries, and the many small groups that met under the umbrella of the wider group. For several years, he was also part of their Brotherhood, a group of single men in the community who lived a monastic-style life together.
Over time, many of the families that made up the community relocated to live near one another in an urban neighborhood in Tempe, Arizona. This made it easier for the community members to maintain an informal social life with one another in addition to more formal planned events.
The community of believers is for a mission, to show the world the love of Christ. Tim Keller described the many ways the City of the Lord reached out to the wider world. Just by living in community, the members were able to provide an attractive witness to others.
The Next Episode
This is the first of a two-part interview with Tim Keller. In the next episode, Tim will talk about the mistakes that can be made while building community, the Sursum Corda community he is helping to form in New Mexico, practical steps for community building, and the four pillars of community life.
- You can find the City of the Lord website here.
- You can find the website of Tim’s community, Sursum Corda, here.
- Tim mentioned John Paul II’s letter Christifideles Laici, which can be found here.
Cover image: Arizona desert. CC BY 2.0: Kevin Dooley
In a recent blog post (Cult Politics), I discussed the spiritual dangers of the American political scene, and explained why this website isn’t “right” or “left.” This post is a follow-up addressing “ecclesiastical politics.”
When Jesus was on earth, he was opposed by two groups: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These groups were very different from one another. The Pharisees were moral and legal rigorists, concerned with maintaining the purity of the Jewish traditions. The Sadducees were compromisers interested in worldly power, and they rejected many aspects of the Jewish traditions. Despite all their disagreements, however, they were ultimately united in their opposition to Christ.
These two groups could be taken as exemplifying two basic temptations that can distort Christ’s message. Today, these tendencies are embodied in two groups that threaten the unity of the Church: the reactionaries and the progressives. The progressives water down the message of the Gospel to enable cooperation with the world. In contrast, the reactionaries emphasize externals instead of the spirit of the Gospel.
Despite their surface contrasts, both fail to properly understand the Christian message, the Incarnation of the Word. Our message is not a bunch of words, but rather is a person, The Word of God. Being founded on the Eternal Word, our message can’t change with the changing times. Reactionaries justify their rigidity and inflexibility by pointing to this changelessness of the Gospel message. They fail, however, to take into account the issue of “translation.” Much as a concept or subject can be represented by many different words and phrases in different languages and contexts, so too the Word of God needs to be “translated” into different expressions to effectively evangelize and Christianize different cultures, times, and social contexts. Further, the eternal, unchanging Word has been entrusted to the fallible and changeable human beings who make up the Mystical Body, and so there are two further issues that reactionaries ignore: development and corruption. Limited human minds can’t fully take in the one Word of God, and so the message develops over time as we come to understand it more fully; that is the point of the Church’s tradition. Due to original sin, the humans who make up the Mystical Body can also introduce distortions into the message, which then needs to be reformed and renewed by going back to the sources. Since reactionaries fail to grasp this, they mistake a certain way of thought and a certain set of customs for The Word Itself. In doing so they become idolators rather than Christians.
Progressives, on the other hand, realize that the presentation of the message has to change and develop over time, but they draw the false conclusion that the message itself changes along with the external form. Instead of seeing the message as an eternal standard against which to measure our attempts, they set about changing the standard, often in the name of mercy. Mercy, however, is the virtue that should inform our attitude toward weak human beings struggling to archive perfection. It has nothing to do with changing the standard we are struggling towards. By attempting to change the message, they too set up an idol: they adore their own understanding of who God is, instead of submitting themselves in humility to the Gospel message.
Both factions are ultimately seeking power over the message and therefore over others. For the progressive, the ability to reshape the message at will gives this power; the progressive becomes not a messenger of God, but an oracle. The progressive leader gets to determine in what ways the message should be reshaped for the current times. The reactionary claims to be absolutely bound to his traditions and unable to deviate from them. This too, however, is a way to gain power, since it insulates the reactionary leader from having to deal with legitimate renewal, reform, development, and diversity. Much as Christ challenged the power of the Pharisees over the common people, the reactionary feels threatened by any suggestion of change or growth. The reactionary figure typically rejects any criticism and refuses to dialog with those who are different. Further, the reactionary can end up acting in “colonial” ways, imposing his preferred liturgical, theological, and artistic styles on other social or ethnic groups, without reflecting that diversity in non-essentials can actually show forth the glory of God.
In a more “political” sense, progressives and reactionaries are also linked with one another. They feed off of one another, each using the excesses of the other to justify their own dissent. Each points out the errors of the other, ignoring the reality that there are many ways to be in error. Anything that leads us away from Christ is to be rejected, no matter what ideological label it bears.
Both groups also end up wasting a lot of energy fixating on inessentials, though for opposite reasons. The best example of this is the ongoing “liturgy wars” which have been dividing our parishes and wasting resources on endless church remodels, as the influence of each side ebbs and flows. The Sacrifice of the Mass and the other Sacraments are, of course, the summit of Catholic spirituality. But the Gospel says nothing about liturgical details, and a focus on these things ironically distracts from the very realities the liturgy is supposed to represent. (For instance, an ongoing debate over the “right” way to receive Holy Communion makes the Sacrament of Unity itself a cause of division.)
Another example is the way the two camps debate about the Church’s teaching on sexual morality. Unlike liturgical details, sexual morality is mentioned by the Gospel and is a serious matter. Still, without a loving, personal relationship with Christ, Christians will find it very difficult to follow the moral law in any area, let alone sexual morality. And seen in isolation from the love of Christ, the rules may seem repellent or simply incomprehensible to outsiders. If both sides spent more time spreading the message of Christ’s transforming, personal love for every human person, they might find that the moral issues wouldn’t be as contentious or troublesome. The progressives would find that they didn’t need to relax the moral code to keep the membership up, and the reactionaries would be able to ground their moral strictures on a much more attractive foundation. As it is, while the progressives claim that reactionaries are too fixated on sexual morality, the fact of the matter is that they are both too fixated on it, though in different ways.
This points to the solution to the division and confusion created by these factions: stay close to Christ. To do so, we’ll have to give up our desire for control. It isn’t just reactionary or progressive leaders who cling to power; we all want a tame, predictable, controllable God who fits our expectations. That was the temptation of the Israelites at Mount Sinai; they built the golden calf because they wanted a god they could comprehend and “box in.” We all reach a certain level in the spiritual life and then want to stick there.
If we stay close to Christ, however, we’ll always be moved out of our comfort zones. Thinking with the mind of Christ will put us at odds with the world around us, just as he was at odds with the Sadducees. It will also shake the internal certainties, habits, and routines of our own groups, just as he disturbed the traditions of the Pharisees. He is a God of surprises.
How can we be sure, though, that we are thinking with the mind of Christ? As Catholics, we believe that Scripture and Tradition are sure guides . . . but only as interpreted by the living Magisterium of the Church. To accept this we have to have the humility to reconcile ourselves to authority. Submitting to authority does not mean turning off our minds, but it does mean that we can’t set ourselves up as interpreters of the Magisterium. We can’t confine ourselves to the past teaching of the Church while rejecting the present teaching; this will close us off to the possibility of being surprised or challenged. Neither can we reject the present teaching in the name of some imagined future development that is not sanctioned by the living Church. Only the present moment is truly real for us, and our Lord is not a God of the dead past or the vague future, but a God of the living present.
In our next blog post, we will discuss thinking with the mind of the Church and how loyalty to the Holy Father can help to keep us close to Christ.
Podcast Episode 10
An interview with Jack Sharpe from the Bethlehem Community of Bathgate, ND. The Bethlehem Community publishes children’s literature as Bethlehem Books.
The History of the Bethlehem Community
The Beginnings in Portland
Jack tells the fascinating story of the Bethlehem community’s development over time. It started as a Charismatic young adult ministry associated with a Baptist church in Portland Oregon; at one point over 80 young adults lived in the 15 houses associated with the group. Over time, the commitment of the members to community life deepened, and they became an independent community, with the members living together and holding all property in common. They gave up their individual jobs and opened a bakery to support the community.
Joining the Catholic Church
As time went on, they felt the need to belong to something bigger than themselves; they studied the Early Church and monastic traditions. Eventually, this led the community to enter the Catholic Church in 1993.
At the same time, the bakery wasn’t working out for the community. They took a leap of faith by starting a publishing house, Bethlehem Books, dedicated to Christian children’s literature, even though they had no experience with this kind of work. To finance their first print run, they sold the bakery and apartment building. Then they waited for God to provide.
Publishing Books and Answering Phones as Benedictines
God provided through Fr. Fessio, who hired the community to answer the 800 number for Ignatius Press. This income gave them the freedom to run Bethlehem Books without worrying about turning a profit.
Through mutual friends, they found a permanent home at a former state school for the blind in Bathgate ND. They also found a permanent spiritual home as Benedictine Oblates; this allowed them to connect to a spirituality and way of life larger and older than their community.
Experience of Community Life
50 years of community experience has given Jack Sharpe a lot of wisdom about living with others. After he outlined the history of his community, we had a fascinating discussion of these more theoretic topics.
He outlined the proper relationship to authority, which is crucial to any successful community. Dysfunctional communities have a fearful relationship with authorities inside and outside the community, which manifests as abject submission to community leaders and total rejection of authorities outside the community.
Community not Clique
Communities can not be made up of people who are all alike. If that is what brings people together, the result will be a clique, not a community. The Grace of Christ working through the mystical body can bind together diverse human beings in love.
“The Humble Hear and are Glad”
We also discussed the importance of humility in community formation and communal life. Starting out with utopian ideals of perfection is unlikely to get a group very far. Even more importantly, the community has to make sure that the weaker members are able to “stay the pace.” Jack quoted psalm 34: the humble will hear and be glad. Is the message of a community making the humble and weak glad?
A Foundation of Love
We concluded by talking about the love of Christ and neighbor as the only true foundation for community life.
Listen to the episode to learn more about this fascinating community!
Header image: Casa Maria and “Rolf and the Viking Bow”, courtesy of Bethlehem Books
Malcolm interviews Dr. Terrence Wright, who is an associate professor of philosophy at Denver’s St. John Vianney Theological Seminary. Dr. Wright is also the author of “Dorothy Day, An Introduction to her Life and Thought,” published by Ignatius Press.
Dorothy Day spent her life working for the promotion and implementation of Catholic Social Teaching. She is the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement and the author of numerous books and articles. Her cause for canonization has been opened by the Catholic Church.
Dorothy Day is a controversial figure; many on the right and left see her as a dissident Catholic. Conservatives reject her due to this perceived dissent, while liberals applaud her for it.
Professor Wright explains that both perspectives are mistaken. Rather than a dissident Catholic, she is better seen as a loyal, if challenging, daughter of the Church; a prophetic figure who calls us to fully live out the message of the Gospel. She was ardently pro-life, but she championed a consistent ethic of life, refusing to pit the defense of the unborn against the defense of the born.
We discussed how dissent from Church teaching and criticism of Church leaders who fail to live up to those teachings are very different. To illustrate this we discussed the familiar story of St. Peter and St. Paul. St. Paul enthusiastically supported St. Peter’s teaching on the unity of Jews and Gentiles in the Church but called Peter out for hypocrisy when he failed to live up to that teaching.
The Social Teachings
Dorothy Day’s work was bound up with the Social Teachings of the Catholic Church. Professor Wright talked briefly about the four major points of this teaching, which are: the dignity of the human person; the importance of the common good; subsidiarity, which entails the rejection of undue interference by higher levels of society with lower levels; and solidarity, the principle of universal human fraternity.
Saintly Role Models
Many Saints influenced Dorothy Day’s outlook and mission, and we mentioned three of them. Day was a Benedictine Oblate, and St. Benedict inspired her vision of hospitality. Her emphasis on the connection between work and prayer is also rooted in Benedictine Spirituality. Another influence was St. Francis of Assisi. Day’s pacifism and voluntary poverty are very Franciscan, and she stressed that St. Francis was a radical, not just a lover of animals. Yet another Saint Day admired was St. Therese of Lisieux. Initially, she thought Therese was overly pious and disliked her style. But over time, she came to realize the importance of the Little Way, of doing everyday actions with great love. For example, Dorothy Day was frustrated by those who talked a lot about high ideals but refused to chop vegetables for the soup line.
The Catholic Worker and the Works of Mercy
The Catholic Worker’s mission was centered on the works of mercy. In this mission, Dorothy Day realized that one can’t separate the spiritual and corporal aspects. On the one hand, the poor could be fed or clothed in a cold, mechanical way that would demean them. (Famously, Dorothy Day said that “our love will make the poor forgive us for the bread we give them.”) On the other hand, we might say we love the poor, but not actually aid them. As St. James tells us, this is not the Christian way. Consequently, the Catholic Worker strives to create a warm, personal environment when sheltering or feeding the poor.
The Challenge of Peace
In one area, Dorothy Day does seem to challenge Church teaching. Just War Theory is the Church’s response to the problem of conflict. It lays out principles that constrain the use and the violence of war, but still allows for the waging of war to protect the innocent. Dorothy Day was a committed pacifist, opposed to all wars and violence, even in self-defense.
Although the Church does not require this level of pacifism of us, we can still find inspiration in it. Just as monastic celibacy provides a profound witness of Christian totality even to those who are married, the pacifism of figures such as Dorothy Day can help us to remember that we are all called to be “peacemakers.”
All transcripts are edited for clarity and readability.
Header image: Book cover: https://www.ignatius.com/
Why this website is not “Liberal” or “Conservative”
“Small minds pit truth against truth, large minds do not.”—Fr. Dubay, in “Happy Are You Poor”
As we discussed in our last podcast episode, cult members tend to see all outsiders as malevolent and untrustworthy. The cult sees itself as fundamentally righteous, and therefore above criticism. Such thinking produces hate and fear directed at outsiders. It also produces blindness to any problems within the group, or within the individuals who make it up.
In a subtler form, this mentality is the constant temptation of the devout Christian. It is the fault of the Pharisee who “thanked God he was not like other men.” The devout are tempted to fixate on the obvious moral failings of “inferior” outsiders, while ignoring their own more subtle sins of pride, rash judgment, and envy. It is always tempting to ignore our own flaws by focusing on those of others.
In the United States today, both of the major political parties have developed this cult-like, pharisaic attitude. Increasingly, the members of both parties see their opponents not merely as mistaken, but as maliciously bent on destroying the country. As with any cult, this fixation on the “evil outsiders” makes party members increasingly unlikely to see internal flaws.
When Christians are drawn into the cult-like world of political ideology, it increases their danger of becoming Pharisees. A conservative friend was lamenting the lack of “really good sermons.” As our conversation progressed, it became clear that in his mind, a “really good sermon” was one focused on abortion or homosexuality; in other words, a sermon that challenged those he saw as outsiders but did not challenge him. Of course, there is a liberal counterpart to this, which laments the fact that sermons aren’t aimed at xenophobia or greed. Political ideologies have divided Christians into opposing groups, each of which sees Christianity as being primarily about defeating “the other guys” instead of about a loving and humble relationship with God and our neighbors.
Both political parties are corrupting because they are “totalitarian.” Just as nothing in a cult member’s life is separate from the cult, political ideologies are increasingly affecting every area of life, from healthcare to education. Religion is no exception. Political platforms often determine the stances that Christians take. This is a serious problem, as the letter to the Hebrews warns us: “Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teaching.” The Christian message does not align with either of the major political parties.
Political ideology contrasted with the Gospel
Jesus tells us: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” Is this the message of any political leaders today? Do they not rather encourage their followers to seek revenge, to hate opponents, and wish for their downfall? Don’t they encourage a fixation getting what is owed us?
Jesus tells us: “Happy are you poor”; and “It will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Is this the message of either political party today? Or do they rather hold out promises of ever-increasing material wealth to those who vote for them?
Jesus tells us: “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Do our political parties encourage us to become angry, to call our brothers and sisters fools… and worse?
Before his Passion, Christ prayed that we might be one as he and the Father are one. Our political parties, on the other hand, produce division; it is their basic strategy, just as it is the basic strategy of the cult.
St. James tells us: “Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” Jesus tells us that the sheep and the goats will be divided depending on how they served the poor. Yet Jesus also tells us: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Neither of our major political parties upholds both social justice and the sanctity of marriage.
The Gospel message can’t be divided up. Christians can’t pick and choose the truths they accept, but this is what both political parties want us to do. C. S. Lewis said, “The devil always sends errors into the world in pairs—pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one.”
We can’t let ideology warp our understanding of the Gospel. Instead, we must “be transformed by the renewal of our minds, so that we may discern what is the will of God, what is good and perfect and true.”
This website strives to serve this renewal by providing a place where those with different viewpoints can interact in friendship. Please join our mission, and pray for unity among Christians.
Prayer from Fratelli Tutti
O God, Trinity of love, from the profound communion of your divine life, pour out upon us a torrent of fraternal love. Grant us the love reflected in the actions of Jesus, in his family of Nazareth, and in the early Christian community. Grant that we Christians may live the Gospel, discovering Christ in each human being, recognizing him crucified in the sufferings of the abandoned and forgotten of our world, and risen in each brother or sister who makes a new start. Come, Holy Spirit, show us your beauty, reflected in all the peoples of the earth, so that we may discover anew that all are important and all are necessary, different faces of the one humanity that God so loves. Amen.
Cult dynamics may be more common than you think.
It might seem that most normal people don’t have to worry about cults. The reality, however, is that cults are merely dysfunctional communities, and their obvious flaws are merely an exaggerated version of common social problems.
There is a strongly felt lack of community in the modern world. This lack produces both a desire for community and a level of inexperience which can make negative dynamics more likely.
In this episode, Malcolm Schluenderfritz and Peter DeGoede discuss a few of these negative dynamics. They try to show the ways that these dynamics can crop up in everyday life, and examine some of the underlying problems.
Some Problematic attitudes
They discuss how cults are marked by dishonesty, both to members and to the wider world, and by a lack of openness to the truth. This type of mentality can afflict any group with divides the world into insiders and outsiders. Group members can become OK with not knowing the truth.
Cults are usually based on fear, but many seemingly harmless communities are also based on fear of the outside world. In particular, parents are afraid that the world will corrupt their children. That’s not a groundless fear but if it is the basis for community formation, everyone will suffer.
An obsessive focus on the nuclear family can actually become selfish and unchristian. Families may do well to avoid the more problematic aspects of our culture. On the other hand, if a focus remains on the negative, it can lead to greater evil. Christ illustrates this point with the Gospel parable of the man who swept his house of a demon, only for seven demons to return.
Focus on the Negative
A focus on the negative can also blind individuals and groups to the evil that is found inside, in individual souls or in a group. We’re all sinners, and we should ground our spirituality in humility. Christ comes to be with us in our weakness and failures. We shouldn’t try to find perfection, which can lead us to gloss over problems.
Any attempt to follow Christ will create a certain amount of division. We have to make choices that will possibly alienate us from those around us. At the same time, such division can lead to cult mentalities by dividing the world between insiders and outsiders. Catholics should not make choices which turn fellow Catholics into outsiders. We have to remain united to the body of Christ, even if this can be a source of pain or frustration at times. In doing so we will be imitating the Saints, who preached a radical message which could be divisive at times, but who nevertheless remained faithful to the unity of the Church.
Along the way, a number of other topics are discussed, including the opposition between choice and culture, “family envy”, the difference between natural virtue and Christianity, liturgy as chosen, and the felt lack of control in the modern world despite our technological abilities.
Header image: a plan drawing of Port Royal convent, the center of the Jansenist movement in France.
“As members of one and the same mystical body of Christ, Christians are bound to one another and must bear one another’s burdens.”—Pope Francis
Bearing the burdens of another in a community is a difficult thing, particularly if those burdens come in the form of grief, shame, or exclusion; yet as St. Paul tells is in Galatians 6:2, sharing burdens fulfills the law of Christ—or in other words, it enables us to become Christ-like. Jesus “did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at” and instead came to share the burden of human existence in humble solidarity with us, not even shrinking from death and from “being made sin” for the salvation of sinners. He was “reckoned among the ungodly” and took our curse upon himself; “cursed is every one that hangs upon a tree.” Jesus presented himself to be baptized in the Jordan, even though John’s baptism signified repentance of sin; Jesus was sinless, but “got in line” with the sinners nonetheless. This association with sinners continued throughout his life, even though it drew down upon him the ire of the Pharisees. He healed the man with the withered hand, even though the result was a plot against his life. He restored Lazarus to life, though this action precipitated his own execution. Even the subtle details of the Gospels show Christ’s solidarity; in Mark chapter 1, he heals a leper, a man whose disease caused exclusion from the community. Now the leper was able to reenter the town . . . and the result was that Christ was unable to enter the town himself! In a certain symbolic way, Jesus had exchanged roles with the leper.
The Christian calling to bear burdens can help us during these troubled times in the Church. Today individual Christians are often shamed before the world by the sins of prominent Christians. In the autumn of 2017, I left a traditionalist community in order to gain a greater unity with the Catholic Church. The group I belonged to wasn’t formally schismatic, but fostered an extremely separatist, schismatic mentality. I rejoiced to suddenly find fellowship with so many fellow Catholics from whom I would have previously held aloof; I rejoiced to find myself truly united with a local church under a local bishop, unhampered by a sense of superiority or grievance. Then the scandals broke in the summer of 2018, and I saw the other side of the coin; I was grieved and mortified to the depth of my soul, not only by the crimes and cover-ups and the resulting divisions in the Church, but by the fact that I was in some way associated with all this rot. I felt deceived; I’d given up my insular world of traditionalism for the wider Church, and this was what I got! Then it dawned on me that if I’d remained a traditionalist, I wouldn’t have been feeling this hurt; I would have merely shrugged, or even worse felt a certain satisfaction, shaking my head knowingly over the corruption of the Church. The fact that a wound inflicted on the Church hurt me was a sign that I was “connected”, that I was alive in Christ by being alive to my fellow Christians; the traditionalist numbness of heart had thawed, and I could feel again; and as anybody knows, the thawing of chilled fingers is an unpleasant sensation!
There is a great temptation to freeze and harden our hearts against all the betrayal and malice in the world, but that is not the way of Christ, who loved those who hated him and died for us “while we were yet enemies”. A solidarity with others in and through Christ will lead to a sharing in his suffering. Hardness of heart was not the way of the saints. St. Paul tells us that in addition to all his physical hardships, he feels “the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches.” He goes on to say “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?” In fact, this sharing of burdens may, in a certain sense, be the purpose having an institutional Church; if we were each alone before God, we might be able to fool ourselves into thinking that we were doing just fine, and didn’t have to “account for” all these other people, might be able to imagine that we weren’t our brother’s keeper.
Even harder than bearing one another’s burdens, but just as essential, is letting others carry our burdens. Our culture tells us to be self-reliant; even if we’re in the depths of despair, we respond to the question “How are you?” with a casual “OK”. We’re embarrassed if others find out that we are suffering financial difficulties, and don’t want to “be a bother”. Compassion, after all, means “suffering with,” so if we receive compassion, we’ve caused someone pain. There is a lot of pressure on us to just “get over” things so that we don’t “drag everybody down.” We honor the “self-made man” who isn’t reliant on others, is always “OK.” In the Christian life, however, being able to receive is even more important than being able to give; it is more connected to humility. We’re all weak and helpless before God, and receive everything from him as a free gift. That’s why the message of Christ is to the poor and the weak, not the rich and strong; the rich can become contented in their wealth and feel self-sufficient. Wealth doesn’t mean just a large bank account; anything we have, such as skills, knowledge, even virtues, can become an obstacle to humble dependence on God. In one sense, the repentant thief who asked Jesus to remember him is the archetypal Christian; a man who knew his own total failure, but was willing to ask for mercy. As C. S. Lewis said in The Great Divorce, none of us will get our “rights;” we’ll get something much better than that!
In this, as in sharing the burden of others, Christ is again our exemplar. As God, he was all-powerful, yet he accepted service from others; from the beginning of life when he received care and teaching and nurture from Mary and Joseph, to the end of his life when he was strengthened by an angel, required assistance to carry the cross to Calvary, and was buried in another man’s tomb.
These virtues, so necessary in living the Christian life, are even more necessary in building Christian community. In our last podcast, Aaron Pott spoke movingly about how humbling it is to have the burden of his family borne by other community members, and about how in the close proximity of community life, he is unable to wear a “good Christian mask” in order to hide his weaknesses. The sharing and bearing of burdens that community necessitates is certainly difficult and painful at times, and I’ve often failed to properly carry the shared burdens of others. Perhaps that is one of the key values of community life; it helps to show us our weaknesses, but it also helps us to encounter the unconditional love of God through the love of community members who are willing to receive us as we are, burdens and all.
An interview with Aaron Pott from Denver’s “House of Welcome and Mission.”
Malcolm Schluenderfritz and Peter Land interview Aaron Pott, who lives in a small Denver-area Christian intentional community, Casa Karibu Sze-Ming. Aaron talks about the origin, history, mission, spirituality, and structure of his community; the “home liturgies” that help glue the community together; the ups and downs of community life; raising children in a community setting; sharing burdens with others; the financial benefits of community; ecumenism; the other communities he has experienced; the balance between consensus and leadership; the dangers of idealism and overly-high expectations; not expecting a community to meet all of one’s needs; staying connected to a wider community; and the importance of hospitality. Peter Land is able to talk about his experience staying at Casa Karibu as a pilgrim traveling through Denver.
(Image shows some of the CKS members in 2019. Courtesy of Aaron Pott)
In podcast episode 6, we discussed the danger of agendas; we always have to be doing something for some reason, to produce some result. Father Simon Tugwell, in his book The Beatitudes, observes that we’ve become suspicious about doing things simply because they’re enjoyable or because we want to do them. He points out that we come up with pseudo-justifications: taking walks for “exercise,” or riding a motorcycle “for the experience,” or having tea with someone “in case he wants to talk.” Worst of all, he says, we “go all solemn and declare something to be ‘important’.” (I think this dynamic is particularly prevalent in aesthetic matters; it sometimes seems we can’t just enjoy a particular style of art or music without claiming it to be the only “proper” style, to be defended at all costs against imaginary barbarians.) Fr. Simon goes on to explain that in one sense, God doesn’t have “a purpose” for what he does; he “is his own purpose”!
Why do we have this inability to relax, this need to feel “busy” and “important”? Perhaps it is that we are uncertain of our value before God, or even before ourselves. We may say that we are pro-life, and that a feeble child with Down’s Syndrome is just as valuable as the most brilliant scholar or powerful ruler, but when it comes to valuing our own lives, we are not so sure; we feel that we have to do something to earn God’s love and validate our own worth.
The reality, however, is that we are feeble, inconsequential, and precisely because of this, God loves us tenderly, no matter what our mistakes and failings may be. A few years ago, a transitional deacon preaching at our parish told the story of his visit to “Purgatory Island” in Northwestern Ireland, spending three days barefoot and fasting, praying constantly, in a harsh environment. On his last evening, he stood looking out over the ocean and presenting himself and all his spiritual exercises to God. And all God said was, “I like your smile!” He came to understand that God wasn’t impressed by all the heroics, but instead that God loved him for himself, for who he was.
These two themes, the danger of agendas and the unmerited quality of God’s love, are beautifully brought together in a short story by J. R. R. Tolkien, Leaf by Niggle. Niggle is a little man, an artist who has a vast project underway; a great picture of a tree in a landscape. The painting becomes the lens through which he comes to view both his own identity and that of others; in particular, his burdensome neighbor becomes a mere obstacle to the completion of his painting. And yet as the story unfolds, he comes to realize both the relative unimportance of his plans and dreams, and the great and merciful love of One who “knows we are but clay”, and yet gives us more than we could ever dream. In the final analysis, Niggle “was never supposed to be very much, anyway” but his very insignificance was transformed into beatitude by the mercy of God.
Leaf by Niggle is both a beautiful meditation on the true meaning of life and a cautionary tale, warning us against measuring our own worth, or the worth of others, against our self-imposed agendas. The warning is particularly critical for those of us with a “mission” for cultural renewal or evangelization or Christian community building. Our projects and imposed agendas can become self-defeating, dividing us from reality and from the true meaning of things. We can come to see others not as splendid, unique beings made in the image of God, but as mere allies or enemies of our projects. We can become proselytizers rather than evangelizers, always trying to advance our ultimately petty projects instead of bringing the “good news” of God’s love to others. The time we “waste” with friends or with God is the truly important time. Every useful activity is for the sake of the “useless”: for rest, for leisure, ultimately for beatitude. What, after all, is the purpose of happiness? In the end, all projects, ideologies, “purposes” will pass away; there are no purposes in Heaven.
Photo by Andreas F. Borchert / CC BY 4.0